Let’s get this out of the way: The Yankees don’t need any one individual player in baseball.
Depth and waves of talent is what makes the franchise so good, and such a sustainable force. Add in incredible resources allowing for the pursuit of a Gerrit Cole or opportunistic trade for a Giancarlo Stanton.
But every decision to pursue or not to pursue a big-name (and often expensive) star is a gamble by the Yankees. And the early returns on Bryce Harper’s tenure with the Phillies suggest that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made a mistake not pursuing a player that once seemed destined for pinstripes in the Bronx.
Harper, after crushing a three-run home run vs. the Red Sox on Monday night, entered play on August 19 with a ridiculous .367/.486/.700 slash line. Among qualified hitters, no one has a higher OPS this season. Harper’s 219 OPS+ (adjusted for league and park averages) is the best in the sport, and far better than his 2015 NL MVP season. For context, Aaron Judge posted a 171 OPS+ in 2017 and Alex Rodriguez’s best Yankees season (2007) featured a 176 OPS+.
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Harper has hit in eight straight games. He’s been on base in every game the Phillies have played in 2020. He has more walks than strikeouts. No current Yankees can claim all those feats. We’re watching a special offensive player rake.
Yes, it’s early. And yes Harper likely won’t be this good all year. But we’re talking about a player that owns a .911 OPS since signing a 13-year, $330M mega deal in Philadelphia prior to the 2019 season. At age 27, Harper is approaching 225 home runs. We’re watching a future member of the 500-home run club in his prime.
And he could have been a Yankees star. In fact, he may have always hoped for that outcome. Yet the Yankees, coming off a 100-win season in 2018 and ALCS trip in 2017, didn’t even seem to entertain the idea of signing Harper. Manny Machado was the free agent the team feigned some interest in two winters ago.
On the surface, it was reasonable. The Yankees already had Aaron Judge and Stanton. They were likely looking into future free agent classes and thinking about allocating money toward Cole. The front office wanted to avoid outrageous long-term deals that hampered financial flexibility with aging, past-their-prime stars.
But it’s hard to watch Harper and see what the Yankees didn’t think they needed. He’s become a durable player, something neither Judge nor Stanton is. He has a flair for the dramatic and loves the bright lights, something Stanton has never shown. He’s a left-handed slugger, something the lineup lacks. He was even willing to move to first base to accommodate the Yankees current roster, which could have continued a lineage of top-tier first baseman in the Bronx that spanned from Don Mattingly to Tino Martinez to Jason Giambi to Mark Teixeira.
Stanton could opt-out after this season. Judge’s troubling injury history could force the Yankees to punt on a long-term deal with the hulking slugger. Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor could end up becoming the first $300M position player the Yankees cut a check for.
Instead of having foresight by signing Harper and auctioning off Judge for a cost-controlled starter (would the Mets have listened to a Judge for Jacob deGrom deal prior to the 2019 season?), the Yankees were risk averse at a time when taking a big swing would have been the right thing do to.
Meanwhile Harper will likely keep doing his thing in Philadelphia, soar towards a second NL MVP and post Jim Thome-ish career numbers on the path to Cooperstown. If the Yankees keep winning, few will second guess anything Cashman does or doesn’t do. But for as good as the Yankees are, your guess is as good as mine as to where they’ll spend and who will earn the bulk of the team’s at-bats in left field, right field, first base and designated hitter for the next five-plus years. It could have been Harper, and it would have been the smart move for a franchise that rarely passes up special left-handed sluggers.
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